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Safety regulators debate table saw safety

Many homeowners and construction workers throughout Baltimore and Maryland rely on power tools to get important projects done. One of the most important tools in any extensive building project is the table saw. The table saw is an old standby and most models have not changed very much over the years, but that may be changing.

An estimated 4,000 Americans lose a finger, hand or arm each year because of accidents with table saws. Technology is available to make table saws safer, but table saw manufacturers often balk at the cost of safety technology. Although manufacturers owe their customers a duty to make their products as safe as possible, and despite the fact makers of dangerous products can be exposed to product liability lawsuits resulting from injuries caused by their products, most manufacturers have not elected to include the safety technology in their products.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is now considering a proposal to make safety brakes mandatory on all new table saws. The safety brakes, known as SawStop, are designed to automatically shut down a table saw if the saw blade contacts flesh instead of wood. The inventor of saw stop has won some members of the CPSC over by demonstrating his product with a hot dog. When the hot dog comes into contact with a spinning saw blade, the blade stops and the hot dog receives only a slight scratch.

The power tool industry is resisting mandatory safety brake requirements, arguing that including the SawStop technology on a table saw would add $100 to the price of table saws, including table saws that presently cost less than $200. Instead, the industry supports the idea of voluntary safety standards that use blade guards and other equipment that would cost much less.

As this story demonstrates, there is often tension between safety and profit in the world of product safety. Many new features and designs that have made us safer over the years have been resisted by manufacturers who claim the safety features are too expensive, including seatbelts, airbags and refrigerators without latches that prevent children from becoming trapped inside. However, history has shown that society is better off for having safer products, even if safety eats into manufacturer profits.

Source: Bloomberg Businessweek, " Consumer Safety: A Fight Over Table Saws," Jeff Plungis, 6/9/2011

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